Tawakul Karman hurried through the morning chill with the burden of a rebel who has crossed from obscurity to fame. The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate in history, she slipped past boys playing soccer and soldiers stirring on the narrow streets of Sana’a.
“I brought you flowers,” she said to a guest. “They bring hope.”
Her secretary, conjuring up the fidgety air of the White Rabbit, checked his watch to nudge her towards her next appointment. But time here is negotiable and Karman would not be distracted from a conversation that ranged from the way tribal women, veiled and hushed, can disappear in plain sight to the upheavals reshaping the Arab world.
“It is a changing era,” said Karman, 33, co-winner of the Nobel in 2011 for her human rights activism. “We are stepping from darkness into light.”
She was nicknamed the “Iron Lady” during the revolution that brought down President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decades-long autocratic rule, and her relentless voice unnerved conservative members of her Islamist Party and taunted the president from a pitched tent beyond his palace walls. She was arrested but quickly released after her supporters threatened larger protests over her detention.
Piercing the post-revolutionary clamour with a fresh message, however, is difficult if not impossible for a woman, even one with a prestigious prize who travels from New York to Brasilia to raise the profile of her country. Karman, whose colourful headscarves spur extremists into fits of piousness, seeks to sharpen her relevance in her country’s patriarchal society.
“I live in a Yemen that was suppressing women. But that was before the revolution,” she said. “I could have moved to the West, but I stayed to make a difference. Women are fighting a masculine culture, not just a religious or social culture. We will revolt against the wrong fatwas and the wrong religious advice.”
But like her country, where assassins race on motorcycles and lute music echoes along ancient fortress walls, Karman is a prism of many angles. A journalist, mother and women’s rights advocate, she also belongs to the Islah Party, whose members include a preacher who once mentored Osama Bin Laden.
Karman and Yemen are a testament to the vast array of Islamist voices rising in the Middle East, where ultraconservatives battle moderates over the contours of an emerging political Islam. It is a dangerous struggle of values between the teachings of the Quran and a modernising region beset by economic turmoil.
Karman sweeps into a room as if blown by a wind. Her dark eyes dart and flash beneath brows tweaked into perfect arcs. Her long, tapered hands come alive when she speaks. She seems as if she would wither without a cause to fight for or a placard to raise.
She projects two lives: public rebel, private mother. Her husband, Mohammad Al Nahmi, told journalists after she was awarded the peace prize, “Before she is my wife, she is a colleague, and a companion in the struggle.”
When she was asked how she endured the travel, speeches and expectations of a Nobel laureate while still protesting for wider freedom, she used the word “duty”. She then said that the flowers she gave visitors came from near her house; they are used in cooking and decorating weddings and funerals. They, like her, are all-purpose, surviving with curious glamour in a parched and dangerous land.
Yemen is as unforgiving as it is beguiling. Its coasts are scattered with refugees floating across the straits from East Africa and its mountains whisper with the movements of rebels and militants. Tribal factions, a divided military and a resurgent Al Qaida have ruptured the air with political recriminations and echoes of suicide bombs.
The atmosphere has been further complicated by Karman’s Islah Party: Supporters say it offers the path towards a moderate Islamic government, while critics describe it as Al Qaida’s political wing.
Karman’s membership in a party that prefers women demure and on the sidelines is a sensitive point for some activists, who see it as a contradiction. Some of her critics praise her spirit but suggest she was given the peace prize too soon in a move by the Nobel committee to quickly recognise and honour the ideals that ignited the Arab Spring.
“Karman is dominated by Islah’s conservatives,” said one critic, Fatima Al Aghbari, a female blogger who wears a black abaya, bright yellow headscarf and sneakers. “What she says doesn’t always come from her own mind. If she strays from Islah’s principles, she can get burnt not only in Yemen but across the region.”
This tightrope stretches through Karman’s life. Quiet moments are few these days. Phone calls from far away find her; her passport, once a nearly blank slate, is well-stamped. Outside her office, where a man clangs canisters used for cooking gas, the faces of the “disappeared” are stencilled in black on walls. Arrested, tortured, gone.
Small bands of protesters still camp in the city but they were silent on a recent Friday as the devout hurried to listen to preachers tell how centuries ago God rescued Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) from enemies in the desert.
Their voices skimmed Karman’s courtyard walls. She said she was not constrained by Islah and that the revolution that forced Saleh to resign transcended religious tendencies and would ultimately deliver greater rights and a more inclusive government. Such a vision may be overly optimistic given Yemen’s tribal instincts and the exclusionary nature of regional Islamist parties.
“Moderate Islamists coming to power will limit ultraconservatives and put an end to extremist movements,” she said. “The Arab Spring has brought a new equation not based on ideologies but on what political parties can do for their countries. ... Islah will not occupy power by itself. It will have to cooperate with socialists and other parties.”
Karman’s transformation from a rebel in the Arab world’s poorest country to a polished Nobel laureate remains unfinished. One newspaper ventured that she would “mature” into the role.
Karman appears earnest, and possesses a keen ability to summon sound bites against injustice. She stopped wearing a face veil years ago, saying it hid her from her message. She and others became an example as more young women peeled away the fabric of custom.
Today, her days are spent updating her website and travelling with a small entourage that meets at her headquarters, Women Journalists Without Chains. She speaks of stemming government corruption, restructuring military and intelligence services and writing a new constitution to speak to the ideals of the young.
“We are in a clash with extremism and terrorism,” she said as her secretary paced the threshold, looking at his watch. “The real battle now is for tolerance.”
Such talk has brought occasional death threats, including a would-be assassin who moved towards her with a dagger, but they haven’t stopped her demands from crackling through loudspeakers. Saleh is gone, but other troubling figures are angling for power. But Karman said the old guard is not inventive enough for new ways; women and youth are the future.
“We will create a new power, a new movement. The revolution has changed the way women look at themselves,” she said. “We will lead the way to change.” The man with the watch pointed her to the courtyard, where a human rights delegation waited amid flowers.